“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” didn’t get an Oscar nod when Academy Award nominations were announced this week. But the film, which premiered Friday, may have an impact on a much bigger contest — the 2016 presidential election.

Thirteen hours covers the timeline of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate and a CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The film isn’t a documentary, but the trailer claims: “This is the true story you were never told.”

Yet like most movies that reflect real events, the veracity of “13 Hours” is being questioned, especially the description of an initial “stand-down” order that could have cost lives. But the visceral reactions “13 Hours” provokes might mute or even moot this debate, since moviegoers are left with the impression that the intrepid defenders of Americans stationed in an extraordinarily hostile environment were abandoned abroad by an ineffectual defense and diplomatic establishment.

Ted Cruz picked up on the movie’s vibe Thursday when he began his debate closing statement by saying: “ ‘13 Hours’ — tomorrow morning a new movie will debut about the incredible bravery of the men fighting for their lives in Benghazi and the politicians who abandoned them.”

Donald Trump took it further (doesn’t he always?) by renting an Urbandale, Iowa, movie theater for a free screening of the film.

No word yet on Hillary Clinton’s reaction. And notably there are no words from, or about, the former secretary of state in the film. The criticism is implied, although from a different perspective than the perpetual Benghazi debate, which has mostly centered on the reaction to the attack.

This may give the issue renewed durability, but it’s not a new controversy for Clinton. She’s already addressed it in interviews and in multiple congressional hearings, including an 11-hour session last November. So voter impressions of how Clinton and her agency handled the attack may already be baked into the electorate’s evaluation of her.

Polling data suggest this evaluation is ongoing — and going in the wrong direction for the Clinton campaign. “Hillary Clinton’s national lead is slipping faster in 2016 than it did in 2008” read a Thursday headline in the Washington Post on a story about the tightening race.

Even more important than those national numbers will be actual votes soon cast in Iowa and New Hampshire. Insurgent Bernie Sanders’ surge in statewide polls seems to have unnerved the Clinton campaign, if not the candidate. First daughter Chelsea Clinton took her first shot not at a Republican, but at Sanders, and Hillary Clinton herself has stepped up the rhetoric. And while the back-and-forth is nothing compared with the scorched-earth Republican race, Clinton’s criticism of Sanders (and vice versa) has sharpened to a degree not seen so far in what was a mostly cordial campaign.

After Iowa’s caucus and New Hampshire’s primary, the focus will shift to South Carolina, where Clinton has a big lead. And her formidable organization, ‘superdelegate’ lead, demonstrable debating prowess and presidential campaign experience suggest she’ll prevail, eventually.

But it won’t be surprising if the Clinton campaign pulls out all the stops in an attempt to regain momentum. After all, the candidate and the campaign have seen this movie before, and back in 2008 it didn’t contend with an actual film that could accelerate the slide.

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.